Views From Havana
By David Hervey
“In the last decades, Cuban ’socialism’ [has] continued to live only because it didn’t yet notice it was already dead.” - Slavoj Zizek
Inspired in part by last semester’s Globe Talk about Cuba, and enabled by the recent relaxation in restrictions on Americans traveling there, I spent this Spring Break in Cuba. Like most college students on vacation in a foreign country, armed with an overpriced liberal-arts education, I instinctively felt by the end of my week there that I had gained some understanding worth sharing of a country that is still mysterious and exciting to many Americans. I am certain that the realities of Cuban life and politics are far more intricate than I am presently able to appreciate given the inherent limitations of time and perspective, but I am certain I have some insights worth sharing.
The most apparent and most important observation that any foreigner will have in Cuba is that the country is changing. Private enterprises, legalised about a year ago, can be found almost everywhere. Importantly, even though many of the new private businesses are aimed at tourists, many are outside tourist areas and rely on consumption by local Cubans, a sign of their increasing disposable incomes. As the economy changes and develops, it is inevitable that people will be more vocal in their demands for goods like internet in their homes or the ability to travel abroad. Because of the communist government’s concern about the internet’s ability to catalyze social unrest, internet is only available in certain designated areas, and nobody we stayed with had internet in their home. As such, according to the World Bank, the internet usage rate in Cuba is only 31.1 people per 100. To put this in perspective, the United States’ rate is 74.5, and the Caribbean countries of Dominica and St. Lucia (which have a per capita GDP similar to that of Cuba) have rates of 67.6 and 52.4, respectively.
That an autocratic state would deny its citizens access to information technology is no surprise. But it is inevitable that ordinary Cubans, seeing their economic situation improve without attendant improvements in their access to desirable goods, will be unsatisfied with the regime that denies them such goods. This is especially true given that, despite restrictions on travel and internet use, Cubans are by no means ignorant of the outside world. Deprivation relative to what a group of people expects that they can reasonably have is an often-suggested cause of social unrest. Anecdotally, we talked to Cubans, even well-connected, relatively wealthy ones, who were unable to travel abroad or access the internet easily, and they -- as you might imagine -- were not happy about it. Should growth in the Cuban economy continue, the communist government will have to improve rights to information technology and foreign travel, or else its legitimacy will be threatened.
From a humanitarian standpoint, the ending of communist rule (or misrule) of Cuba is the first step to lasting improvements in the country. It was very apparent during my time there that the poverty was, in large part, not because of American imperialism in the form of the embargo but because of mismanagement. With perhaps the exception of some financial services, anything Cuba is prohibited from importing from the United States, it can import from some other country instead. It can buy heavy machinery from China, and agricultural products from Brazil. Shipping, an industry decidedly not dominated by the United States, is not an issue.
But while I argue that the US embargo is not as crippling to the Cuban economy as the Communist Party would have you think, I came away from Cuba convinced that the embargo should end. Most importantly, the continuation of the embargo reinforces the anti-American narrative propagated by the Castro regime. Referred to in propaganda as “the blockade,” the embargo is a common feature in anti-American posters, murals, and billboards, including one placed strategically outside the exit of Havana’s airport. With an almost-Orwellian level of absurdity, the billboards and state-sponsored media proclaim “the blockade” to be a genocide against the Cuban people. To end the embargo would be to deprive the Cuban government of important fodder for propaganda.
Furthermore, an end to the propaganda could catalyze social change in Cuba. On some level, not too much would change. The Cuban government is still skeptical of foreign investment, demanding that any foreign venture is majority-owned by state enterprises and restricting which projects foreign investors can participate in. But the tourism sector, which has most visibly been changed by private enterprise and thus has the most ability to bring economic improvements to individuals rather than state-owned enterprises, would be transformed by an influx of tourists and money from the United States.
Admittedly, there are potential pitfalls to be avoided when ending or downsizing the embargo: if future American tourists decide to spend money in the state-owned hotels and all-inclusive resorts rather than rent rooms from enterprising individuals, the economic growth will be diverted to the well-connected Communist Party members rather than the nascent middle class. And while I left Cuba supporting an end to the embargo, I can see why many people want to see it remain. A flood of Americans going to Cuba and financing the autocratic regime -- as no foreign visitor can avoid doing -- returning home with their government-produced Havana Club rum, wearing Che Guevara graphic tee shirts, unconscious of or unconcerned with the moral ambiguity of their consumption.
From careless comments about irrational government repression to veiled Orwell references in art, just vague enough to reasonably slip by the censors, it is apparent that Cuba is changing. The question, then, from an international perspective, is how to manage that change and make sure it occurs smoothly and constructively. The chief danger in managing the change is that government domination of the economy will simply be replaced by American multinational companies, with little improvement in the lives of ordinary Cubans. In a time when protectionism is ascendant around the world, the danger of a backlash to globalization is familiar in many more countries than Cuba. As Cuba is further reached by foreign economic influences, as it inevitably will be, such a risk is very real. To enable continued and constructive progress in Cuba, it is necessary that the United States take steps to ensure that the Cuban people see returns from any American consumption of or investment in Cuban industry. Cuba has already recoiled once from American economic domination, and it would be a tragedy if this history repeated itself.